Named and shamed in passion for punishment

30th May 1997 at 01:00
George Varnava was drafted in to head a task force to save a school in trouble. Less than five months later his was one of 18 "failing schools" given until September to improve - or else

It was not surprising that a new Government with a passion for education should act promptly. It was disappointing, however, that their first embrace was more punitive than passionate. A government that cannot see the difference between punishment and correction is unlikely to gain the confidence of the half million teachers who voted for them.

Schools are often blamed for bullying among children, yet teachers are treated aggressively, with humiliation and threats of school closure, job losses and damaged careers. There may be weak teachers but no more than in any other group of workers. The essence of a civilised society is the protection and support of its weaker members, not the expulsion.

The "naming and shaming" of Ashburton High School was particularly galling. Croydon's own task group had joined the staff only four and a half months earlier and the Government's decision to act was based on evidence gathered when the task group had been in place for hardly more than a month.

The self-styled experts tell us that education is in a mess. In reality, society is in a mess; it is in a state of decay and the most vivid evidence of its decline is in our treatment of children. There is not much point in blaming society since society is intangible; so we blame schools.

The family, the Church, youth services, the expectation of a job for life - these are the crumbling pillars on which children can no longer lean. It is the school that has become the last guarantor of continuity, stability and a framework of control. Children are highly vulnerable to the influences of television, materialism, competitiveness and their undisclosed feelings of insecurity. They are uncertain about the future and fearful of a deteriorating environment.

There is a limit, nevertheless, to what schools can do to counteract such confusion. Education programmes on sex and drugs have not prevented the dramatic increase in sexual activity and drug abuse among the young. Stronger influences are at play. In the wider social context, schools can only inform; they cannot enforce.

The neglect of children in British society is becoming vividly apparent. The UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe. There is an increasing number of children in the care of adults other than natural parents. There are 250, 000 missing people in Britain, a high proportion of them children.

Above all, we have failed to instil a learning ethos among children and have assumed that education is only the business of teachers. We legally permit children to work from the age of 13 - the earliest in Europe. The general public assumption is that anything and everything to do with children is the business and responsibility of teachers. There is evidence everywhere; the service-station shop sign, for example, stipulates "only two schoolchildren at a time" - not just children, note, but "schoolchildren". A local resident telephones the school to complain: "Your pupils are sitting on my wall. "

Teachers have allowed themselves to take on full responsibility for the education, social and personal development of children and they are condemned for their efforts. The task is an impossible one. How illogical to judge a school by standards that should be set at home: homework, uniform, attendance, punctuality, respect for education, self-esteem. More and more, the responsibility for children is being abandoned by adults. How many parents can be sure, at any time, where their children are, who they are with, how much money they have and what they are doing?

How are children coping? We know they are resilient, manipulative and opportunist. Fortunately, they are survivors. But they are confused by the mixed messages they receive from us as adults. We tell them not to drop litter, yet we are destroying the environment on a worldwide scale. We tell them to be nice to one another, yet the entertainment we provide for them is predominantly violent. We tell them to value themselves, yet we are materialistic beyond belief.

Education in Britain today looks like Gulliver: a powerful creature constrained by innumerable petty bonds. There is political commitment to education but only within the bounds of party dogma. The promise to parents of choice in school has not been fulfilled; it is now the school that makes the choice of pupil, and over-subscribed schools result in more surplus places in others. Stifling reforms have diverted teachers from essential tasks. Accelerating change has endangered levels of control.

The lack of investment is made worse by the diversion of money from direct spending on children to the "parasitic industries" - those that feed off instability in the system. Note how inspection has spawned pre-inspection and post-inspection consultants; the growth in testing has given millions to writers and publishers; the school improvement movement which is probably the most popular and most time-consuming conference topic - as if there were any school trying to get worse!

Contradictions within the system add to confusion and hamper progress. Anti-intellectualism is condemned yet, as in the business world, the concern of education is now for economy and profitability rather than learning for its own sake. This is illustrated starkly by the Royal Society of Arts' slogan Learning Pays. There is a demand for high standards from all children yet selection of the few inevitably results in the neglect or rejection of the many. We have a national curriculum that ignores globalisation and there is a persistent call for back to basics when the basics are no longer what they were. We aspire to success and are preoccupied with failure.

Schools are doing their best to counteract the effects of social disruption on children. Whatever criticisms are levelled at them, teachers have responded to reform and have recognised the importance of the part they play. They are battling against odds to instil an appetite for learning and create the best possible conditions for progress and success. But the more they take on, the less they are respected.

We have to be positive and optimistic. The election of a new Government provides a fresh opportunity to make a genuine, national commitment to education, recognising that the way to a better world is more likely to be through education than economics. Getting education right would result in less spending on health, law and order and unemployment. A new Government will need to be generous towards schools, financially and in its support for their work.

It would not be difficult, and would cost nothing to remove the guilt-complex that teachers now suffer. Restoring professional autonomy would help enormously. Clear expectations of all concerned are essential. Just what is reasonable for society to expect of its schools? What should parents expect of their children? What can children expect of adults?

For the sake of both pupils and teachers we have to find ways of putting enjoyment back into learning. This is more a matter of attitude than money. We must motivate children, but with the right reasons and with the right rewards. Is it right, as in some schools in the United States, to reward success not with a book but a hamburger? Children must understand that learning is not only useful; it is necessary and it can be fun. My slogan for Ashburton High School this term is Make Learning Fashionable.

George Varnava is the headteacher of Ashburton High School, Croydon. He is a former president of the National Association of Head Teachers

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